On September 7, hours after Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid unveiled the group’s new all-male transitional government, Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a statement confirming that the Taliban remain fully in favor of enforcing Sharia or of Islamic law in Afghanistan.
25 years ago, shortly after the seizure of power in Afghanistan, Taliban founder chief Mullah Mohamed Omar said that the Taliban would establish “a purely Islamic system” in Afghanistan. A strict interpretation of Sharia law was enforced during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
In his first public statement since the Taliban came to power in Kabul on August 15, Akhundzada repeated the words of Mullah Omar. “I assure all compatriots that the numbers [ministers in the Taliban government] will work hard to uphold Islamic rules and Sharia law in the country, ”he said.
“Our last 20 years of struggle and jihad had two big goals. First, to end foreign occupation and aggression and liberate the country, and second, to establish a complete, independent, stable and central Islamic system in the country, ”Akhundzada said, adding that“ in the future, all matters of governance and the Life in Afghanistan is regulated by the laws of the Holy Sharia. “
Islamic law will guide the behavior of the new government in its engagement with other countries. The “Islamic Emirate”, as the Taliban call the new structure, is committed to international law and to Afghan treaties and obligations that “do not conflict with Islamic law,” said Akhundzada. The Taliban supreme leader assured Afghans that the new leadership would ensure “lasting peace, prosperity and development” and said that “people should not try to leave the country.”
“The Islamic emirate has no problem with anyone,” he claimed.
The religious clergyman Akhundzada has been the leader of the Taliban since May 2016 when his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan.
At the time of his appointment as Taliban chief by the Rahbari Shura (leadership) Akhundzada, like his two predecessors Omar and Mansour, was given the title “Amir ul Mumineen” or “Commander of the Believers”.
Announcing the line-up in the new government, Mujahid said that Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was foreign minister in the previous Taliban regime, would head the Islamic emirate as prime minister, while Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the political bureau in Qatar, would head as serve his deputy. Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Omar, will head the powerful ministries of home affairs and defense, respectively.
Women, Hazaras, Shiites and members of the previous government have no place in the new list.
Media reports suggest that Afghanistan’s new governance structure will be similar to that in Iran. For one, it is dominated by religious clergy.
As in Iran, where its Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei is the head of state and the highest political and religious authority, the army and all other institutions subordinate to him, the word of Supreme Leader Akhundzadas will be final on all matters in Afghanistan – religious, political and military .
Akhundzada is “the most powerful man in the Islamic emirate,” said Tahir Khan, a correspondent for Arab News from Islamabad. Akhundzada would be the “main figure of the Taliban government”.
Remembering the system that existed during the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001), Khan said that real power lies with the Rahbari Shura. Omar directed this shura. He issued fatwas (edicts) and dictates. Omar’s word is final, said Khan.
Speaking to The Diplomat from Kabul, Khan claimed that Akhundzada would play a similar role in the new government. Even in the current constellation, “the Rahbari Shura will oversee and monitor the work of the government” and “will have the upper hand or play a dominant role in important government decisions”.
And as the head of the Rahbari Shura, Akhundzada will be in charge. In fact, he will not be at the head of the government, but above it.
Of course, many of those who have meanwhile been appointed ministers are also members of the Rahbari Shura.
Akhundzada’s approval of the appointment of ministers in the Taliban’s interim government. Citing a Taliban leader who spoke to him last month, Khan said Akhundzada had reportedly nominated Sirajuddin Haqqani and Yaqoob to recommend names for the cabinet and other top government positions. He later approved these names.
Is Akhundzada then a powerless figurehead, someone who only approves of other people’s decisions?
This is unlikely. “Nobody can dare to speak against Akhundzada’s decisions, even if he disagrees with him,” said Khan.
Apparently, Akhundzada “made an important decision in the past even without consulting Rahbari Shura members”. This was the case when Yaqoob was appointed head of the military commission, says Khan.
Akhundzada has appointed Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund as head of government, who is one of his most trustworthy colleagues and also a confidante of Mullah Omar.
Akhundzada, like other Rahbari Shura members, has lived in Quetta, Pakistan, since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, he is said to have moved to Kandahar. Unlike several other Taliban leaders, however, he has yet to appear in public. This has fueled rumors that he might be dead.
Last year there were strong rumors that Akhundzada died of COVID-19. The Taliban denied the allegations. But his failure to emerge from the shadows even after the Taliban came to power in Kabul in August or when the new government was announced earlier this week has breathed new life into the rumors.
If he’s dead, why don’t the Taliban deliver the news?
Omar is said to have died in 2013, but his deputy Mansour and his supporters kept the news of his death secret to prevent a war of succession with the Taliban. It was not until 2015 that Omar’s death became known. By this point, Mansour had consolidated control of the Taliban, although his leadership had been severely challenged during his brief tenure at the top.
It is therefore possible that the Taliban are keeping the news of Akhundzada’s death a secret, as the group does not want to risk a dispute between various commanders and leaders to succeed Akhundzada at this critical juncture.
Recent photos of a smiling Akhundzada are circulated as evidence that he is alive. Maybe it is. Taliban leaders now say that the supreme leader will appear when the new government takes the lead.
Akhundzada was born in the Panjwai district of Kandahar in the late 1960s, and came from a family of religion teachers. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he moved to Pakistan, where he studied religious studies.
Interestingly, unlike some of the leading Taliban, including Baradar and Akhund, Akhundzada is not a co-founder of the Taliban. Nor can he boast of any military experience. During the Taliban rule, he worked at the provincial court in Kandahar, where he met Omar and headed military courts in Nangarhar and Kabul until the fall of the regime. His judgments during this period were reportedly “harsh,” reflecting the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam.
Akhundzada’s status with the Taliban evidently stems from his deep knowledge and experience of Islamic law. He was a close confidante of Omar, who reportedly questioned Akhundzada on issues relating to Islamic jurisprudence. Akhundzada has also been a religious teacher to thousands of Taliban fighters and therefore enjoys their respect and obedience.
Akhundzada, an inconspicuous person, was chosen to succeed Mansour because he was not divisive. Under Mansour, the Taliban were on the verge of fragmentation. The Rahbari Shura was looking for a leader who would heal the divisions in the Taliban. The uncontroversial Akhundzada, the chief judge in the Taliban’s shadow government and later deputy to Mansour, became their unanimous choice.
In contrast to his predecessors at the top of the Taliban, Akhundzada lacks charisma or battlefield experience. But these very qualities may have helped him survive the last five years; his lackluster personality was probably not threatening to other leaders.
Little was expected of Akhundzada when he took the reins of the Taliban in May 2016. He was considered a weak leader.
Despite his apparent weakness, Akhundzada took great risks; Under his leadership, the Taliban announced a ceasefire for the first time in 2018, followed by historic talks with the US that resulted in an agreement calling for American troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Under his leadership, the Taliban have also taken power in Kabul.
And in contrast to some members of the new government such as Akhund or Sirajuddin Haqqani, Akhundzada does not appear on either the US wanted lists or the UN sanctions lists. Akhundzada’s reputation as a religious scholar and his non-threatening personality helped him hold the warring factions of the Taliban together when it was an insurgent group. But governing a government that has little governmental knowledge and little public trust will prove far more difficult.
Is Akhundzada up to it? That is, if he is alive.